Federal judge tells UHLC students how he became 'The Accidental Jurist'

Gray H. Miller describes choices made on career path from ship to bench.

Gray H. Miller

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April 12, 2013 -- In forging a career path that led from the high seas to the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller followed the sage advice of that noted philosopher Yogi Berra – "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Miller '78 used that oft-quoted Yogi-ism as a thread Wednesday to explain to University of Houston Law Center students how he became "The Accidental Jurist."

"People ask me, 'What was your plan? Did you always want to be a judge?' The answer is 'no,' " he said during a lunch hour talk sponsored by The Federalist  Society. Many people don't have a plan, or it they do, it doesn't work out, he continued.  "I became a federal judge by a very unorthodox path."

As a student at what is now Strake Jesuit High School in Houston, Miller worked the summer of 1965 as a congressional page during LBJ's presidency and witnessed passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act. He considered politics as a career choice, but his father suggested he needed a more impressive resume than a few months as a Capitol page. The lure of the sea and the chance to visit exotic places had always seemed attractive so he considered a naval career, but didn't meet certain physical criteria for application to Annapolis.  He had come to a fork in the road, and took it to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, thinking he could become a ship's captain. His first experience at sea was aboard a new freighter with a highly capable crew and ports of call around the world.  His next ship was a rusty old tanker with a less than professional crew.  "I realized I had made a pretty serious mistake," he said.

Miller returned to Houston and sold clothes at Neiman Marcus in the then-new Galleria.  But soon, with a child on the way, he realized he needed a better job and more money. He was at another fork in the road when he saw that the Houston Police Department was hiring new officers and would even pay for college courses. He joined the force and enrolled in the University of Houston, earning a B.A. in history in 1974 and thinking maybe he could eventually advance to a career with the FBI or Secret Service.  But after nine years on the force he grew tired of law enforcement and, once again, took his father's advice to go to law school. He took courses at night while working days at HPD and at one point took a class in admiralty law, an opportunity to draw upon his days at sea. Maritime law was a major specialty at the big firms back then with the Port of Houston booming. He landed interviews with three of Houston's most prestigious firms and was hired by Fulbright & Jaworski upon his graduation in 1978, most likely, he said, because of his sailing experience.

Twenty-eight years later, after a career as a partner in the shrinking maritime section, he began thinking about doing something else. Word that a federal judge in the southern district was taking senior status, "put a bug in my mind," he said. Though it would mean "a huge pay cut," he said, "the kids were grown and off the pay roll," so he and his wife decided to explore the opportunity. That first vacancy was filled by another federal judge, but when a second opening occurred 18 months later, Miller was chosen by a selection committee over three other candidates. "I believe they picked me because of my law enforcement experience," he said. "The others didn't have real world and practical experience." He was recommended by Senators Hutchison and Cornyn, went through a lengthy vetting process, was nominated by President George W. Bush, and approved unanimously by the Senate in 2006.

His reaction on assuming the lifetime judicial position, "Now what do I do?" During his seven years on the bench he has heard every variety of cases from civil to criminal, but also swears in new attorneys and citizens, which he considers the most enjoyable part of his responsibilities.

Miller's career path may have been unique, but the lessons learned at those forks in the road apply to everyone, he said.  "Take advantage of every opportunity and experience offered to you," he said, "even if it doesn't lead to where you think you want to go," it may pay off in the end.

One bit of parting advice to the room full of future lawyers came again from his dad: "Stand up straight, look people in the eye, smile, always be prepared, and be polite."

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